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         Keith Porter Papers

Keith Porter is regarded as one of the founders of the modern science of cell biology.  As a young scientist in 1944, Porter teamed up with Albert Claude and Ernest Fullam to produce the first picture of a whole cell taken with an electron microscope.  That achievement led to a lifelong search using electron microscopy to uncover the secrets of cells and their subcellular components. Porter made fundamental contributions to improvements in  tissue culture and microscopy.  But he is best known for his discoveries relating to cell structures, including the endoplasmic reticulum, cilia, microtubules, autolysosomes, coated vesicles, and the focus of much of his later work -- the microtrabecullar lattice.  For his many achievements, Porter received numerous awards and eleven honorary degrees. 


Keith Roberts Porter was born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, on June 11, 1912.  In 1934 he received a Bachelor of Science degree from Acadia University and began graduate school at Harvard, where he earned Master’s and Ph.D. degrees.  In 1938 Porter married Elizabeth Lingley and undertook a post-graduate fellowship at Princeton.  The following year he began his long association with The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in the laboratory of  James Murphy.  Initially, he studied embryos of geographically distinct populations of Rana pipiens.  That work was interrupted in the early 1940s when Porter, his wife and infant son contracted tuberculosis.  The Porters’ son died, and both parents spent extended periods in a sanitarium.  During this time, Porter investigated tuberculosis bacilli, and gained insights into culturing bacteria and distinguishing artifacts in bacterial samples prepared for light microscopy. These insights aided Porter when he returned to full time work at Rockefeller and turned his attentions to developing techniques for tissue culture. Porter collaborated with Claude in extraction experiments aimed at isolating components from cultured cells, including cancer causing particles from tumor cells.  It was this work, with the assistance of  the electron microscopist Ernest Fullam, that led to the first electron micrograph of a whole cell.

Subsequently, Porter intensified his efforts to improve methods of  tissue culture and refine the technologies needed to prepare samples for electron microscopy.   Porter helped found the Tissue Culture Commission in 1946 (later called the Tissue Culture Association) and became its first chairman.  For many years Porter was actively involved in the Association, teaching many of the tissue culture classes sponsored by the Association, and served as president of the TCA from 1978 to 1980.  As Porter helped bring about advances in the science of tissue culture, he became increasingly frustrated with microtomes that failed to produce reliable, intact thin sections of whole tissues needed for good viewing with the electron microscope.  Collaborating with J. Blum, Porter developed the Porter-Blum microtome, which in 1953 marked a significant advance in microtomy.  This and other technical solutions allowed for clearer pictures, which Porter used to good advantage. His observations on cell structures placed him in the vanguard of his field.  Several papers elucidating the endoplasmic reticulum and its various roles in animal and plant cells were authored or co-authored by Porter in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Porter’s important contributions to the understanding of the sarcoplasmic reticulum and its function in muscle cells demonstrated how one type of cellular organelle (the endoplasmic reticulum) could adapt to different kinds of tissues. During this same period, Porter also published extensive studies on collagen, and early work on the structure of microtubules within ciliated epithelia.


As the decade of the 1960s progressed, Porter continued his studies of cell fine structure, conducting extensive experiments on the fine structure of liver cells and the changes that occurred during glycogen metabolism.  Porter’s interest in microtubules also increased as he became convinced of their role in determining cell form and intracellular movement. Through experiments designed to elucidate the aggregation and dispersal of fish chromatophores, Porter demonstrated the role of  microtubules in the movement of structures within cells.


Meanwhile, Porter’s growing reputation as a cell biologist led to his high profile involvement in scientific societies and various ventures, publishing and otherwise.  In 1960-1961 Porter led a group of cell biologists in the founding of the American Society for Cell Biology.       In 1962 the ASCB became a co-sponsor, with the Rockefeller University, of the Journal of Cell Biology. The JCB had begun life as the Journal of Biophysical and Biochemical Cytology, established in 1955 with Porter as the Managing Editor.  The ASCB quickly grew in importance as a forum for cell biologists to exchange ideas, to promote education in cell biology, and to increase government funding for the biological sciences.  By the middle of the following decade (1976), the society undertook the enormous task of holding the First International Congress for Cell Biology in Boston.  Porter played a major role in organizing and hosting the Congress. 


The 1960s and 1970s were also years during which Porter moved to challenging new jobs in academia. In 1961, after more than twenty years at Rockefeller, Porter accepted a professorship in the Department of Biology at Harvard.  From 1965 to 1967 he served as chairman of that department. But Porter was lured away in 1968 by an offer from the University of Colorado at Boulder to create his own department of cell biology.  This was an ambitious period during the  university’s planning and development when it sought to build prestige by bringing in top academics in a number of fields.  With strong backing from the University of Colorado, Porter, as chairman (1968-1974) of the new Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, arranged for a million volt electron microscope to be brought to the new department.  This high voltage electron microscope, one of only three in the country, was used by  Porter and his colleagues to view the interior of cells three dimensionally and gain a better understanding of cell organelles and their relationships to surrounding cell structures.  One of the most publicized outcomes of this work was the separation of cell karyoplasts from cytoplasts and their recombination to form “hybrid” cells.   Porter and his collaborators used the technique in part to explore the fundamental causes of muscular dystrophy.  Also during this period, a new scanning electron microscope allowed another kind of three dimensional look at cells and tissues, showing surface morphologies in great detail.  Porter participated in extensive studies of cell surface structures, identifying the differences between normal and malignant cells through the stages of the cell cycle.


Porter’s tenure at the University of Colorado from 1968 to 1984 was a period of great activity.  As an experimental cell biologist and as a department and facilities developer, Porter received many accolades.  The University showed its gratitude by awarding Porter in 1973 the Robert L. Stearns Award for Distinguished Service to the University of Colorado.  In 1978 he became one of two professors to receive the first “Distinguished Professor” title at the University of Colorado.  These were just two of more than two dozen awards that Porter acquired over the course of his career – more than half of them coming to Porter during his stay at CU. Among the most visible was the National Medal of Science awarded to Porter in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.  Other honors followed. The Keith R. Porter Endowment for Cell Biology was established by students of Porter in 1981 to honor his contributions through programs to advance education in cell biology.  The following year, in honor of Porter’s seventieth  birthday, the “Porterfest” symposium was held in Boulder, during which the latest work in cell biology was presented by Porter’s students and colleagues.


Porter spent the final stages of his professional life first at the University of Maryland, and then at the University of Pennsylvania.  From 1984 to 1987 he held the titles of Wilson Elkins Distinguished Professor and Chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.  During this period, Porter continued his work on the cytoplasmic matrix and the microtrabecular lattice.  Following his retirement from  UMBC, Porter moved to the University of Pennsylvania where he received an appointment as Distinguished Research Professor of Biology. 

In 1997 shortly before his eighty-fifth birthday, Porter died in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  His death followed by four years the death of his wife Elizabeth Porter.  He was buried near his birthplace in Pleasant Valley, Nova Scotia.




  • A Brief History of Early Cell Biology and Keith Porter’s Role.  The Keith R. Porter Endowment for Cell Biology, 12/31/02.  http://www.porterendowment.org/early_cell_biology.html
  • CU’s Boulding, Porter Named First Distinguished Professors. Clipping: Boulder Daily Camera, n.d.
  • Graduate Programs in Biological Sciences. University of Maryland Baltimore County, c. 1984.
  • History of the American Society for Cell Biology.  Special Collections, UMBC, 12/31/02.  http://aok.lib.umbc.edu/speccoll/ASCBsub/ASCB_history.php3
  • Keith Roberts Porter.  Journal of Electron Microscopy Technique, 6: 127-129, 1987.
  • Pioneers in Modern Biology:  Keith Roberts Porter and the Electron Microscope in Cell Biology, [n.d.] videotape in the Mary A. Bonneville Collection, Archives, Norlin Library, University of Colorado at Boulder.
  • Porter Legacy Lives on at CU – Boulder. C.U. Legacy, IV: 6.
  • University Researchers Use Million-Volt Electron Microscope to Mass Produce Cell Combinations. The NIH Record, XXVII: 3, July 29, 1975.
  • Who We Are.  The Keith R. Porter Endowment for Cell Biology, 12/31/02.  http://www.porterendowment.org/ By Katherine Harris, Ph.D.